Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Radical Buddhist Reflections: The Angry Asian Buddhist

Anger has been a common subject of conversation for me over the last few months.  I've been experiencing my own anger and frustration at the challenges of interfaith dialogue and engagement.  But recently the conversation of religious anger has shifted, to include the voice of my friend Dolma Shepa, a Nyingma Buddhist originally from Nepal.  Recently, Dolma and I talked at length about what it means to her to be an Angry Asian Buddhist.

Yesterday, my friends were joking with me and they said, "There is so much rage in that tiny Buddhist body of yours." Oh, it's so true.

This is how our conversation starts.  We have come together to discuss her experiences as an Asian Buddhist in this country and her impressions of Western Buddhism.  But I had no idea that so much of what she would talk about was her anger.  As a White American Pagan, I had never really considered how much she had to be righteously angry about.  While we talked about a lot of things, let me share her thoughts on the idea of being an Angry Buddhist and how even asking for the right to be angry is a fight for some people.

It's an interesting anger when it about something you hold so sacred.  I really like socks and once I found these socks with the Ohm symbol on them.  Feet are very sacrilegious in Nyingma Buddhism.  In Nepal, you don't ever touch people with your feet.  So when I saw those socks and I was just so offended.  It was so clearly sacrilegious.  I can't really explain.  I don't think it really translates, that sense of horror.  If you grow up in that context, you have a very natural sense of what is right and wrong, what's respectful and disrespectful.  When Buddhism is imported into the West but those cultural aspects don't translate, that's where a lot of the anger comes in.

To be honest, I had never really considered this.  There are ohms and Buddhas used as graphics for all sorts of things.  I know that I've heard something to the effect that Buddhism isn't really a religion as much as it's a philosophy, but I discovered this was complete misinformation and cultural ignorance during my most recent class through the Institute of Buddhist Studies.  Maybe that's why we feel we can appropriate these images and use them to symbolize nice feelings without tying them to a complex religious tradition far older than our country.  Seriously, what other religion imagery ends up on knick knacks and bobbles for sale?  Sure there are Jesus images and Saints on candles and such, but those things are developed for and marketed to people who practice that faith.  Why would it make sense to have a giant Buddha just sitting out in your garden?  Dolma mentions that as well, how appalled she was when she first saw the use of Buddha as a lawn decoration because no Nyingma Buddhist would ever put a statue out there like that.  It would be beyond disrespectful.

However, I wonder how much of this is simple cultural differences.  American commercialize everything, including our religions.  Many Christians have no problem with big plastic Jesus decorations.  In the end though, this isn't our religion to commercialize.  Buddhism is an import and American Buddhists are converts.  What does it mean to bring this tradition into the United States and change it?  What does it mean when a whole religious tradition like Buddhism is whittled down into some simple ideas about being peaceful and meditating so that we are taught to assume we already understand it and its practitioners, before we even begin to learn about it?

I'm also angry because we get held up to this really weird standard which is based on this Orientalized image of what we are.  It's not a genuine misunderstanding.  It's not an innocent learning exchange.  It's more of a "let me tell you what you are and then let me judge you by my definitions."  This happens constantly when someone finds out I'm Buddhist.  I explain my religious identity to someone and they say, "Well, Buddhists believe..."  It's fascinating how people love to tell you what you believe.  This doesn't happen with any other religious tradition.  No one would go up to a Jew and be like, "Oh, so in the Torah..."  People don't do that.  But for some reason, everyone likes to think they are an expert on Buddhists.  It's this idea that Asian people are so submissive and sweet and quiet and so of course they'll put up with it.  The say "You're an angry Buddhist," and I wonder, "Am I not allowed to be angry?"  We don't have a monopoly on kindness.  I don't know why people say that.  I have great interactions with people where they say, "Well, that's not very Buddhist of you." Who would go up to a Christian and say, "Well, that's not very Christ-like of you."

First of all, I was appalled when I heard this.  The idea that strangers would feel comfortable defining your religious path and then judging how well you are walking it reflects a level of privilege that is hard to get my head around.  Unfortunately, I'm not really all that surprised either.  Additionally, this whole part of the conversation had me thinking more about the generalizations we have about religious traditions.  What does the mainstream cultural knowledge of Christianity look like?  What do outsiders see when they see a Jewish Temple?  I think it's safe to say that Buddhists are seen as peaceful and quiet, very non-threatening.  In addition to the thoughts I mentioned above, it makes sense that Buddhists might run into people who assumed authority about their religion.  While I'm sure that it's frustrating for her and really shouldn't be her job in the world, I'm kinda not-so-secretly happy to think about these people running into an empowered Radical Buddhist like Dolma.

It's a very big part of my Buddhist practice, learning to control my anger.  Working with my mentor not only taught me how to express my anger but it also kinda showed it to me.  I knew I was angry but I didn't know why.  I knew I was upset by things but I didn't know how to explain it.   I think it also helped me become comfortable with my anger. There's nothing wrong with being angry.  I'm angry but I'm not aggressive.  I'm not out to hurt people.

This is true.  Dolma is angry, but we also laughed through all of these stories.  She is a kind and loving Angry Asian Buddhist.  I'm really glad to know her.  Just by being, she expands my mind and breaks stereotypes, which is one of my favorite qualities in a friend.